Statues have always been a high-profile target for vandalism. Whether socio-political or merely irreverent, messages of all sorts are strewn across these artistic monoliths, and we have seen no shortage of statue-related incidents over the past several years with calls for colonial monuments to be removed. This past week in Bordeaux, France, the Modeste Testas statue that stands as a memorial to the city’s role in the slave trade was covered in white plaster. And while official reports claim there was no racist intent by the perpetrator, the situation raises a number of questions.
The statue, which was created by Haitian sculptor Woodly “Filipo” Caymitte, depicts Al Pouessi—known as Modeste Testas—who was taken from Ethiopia at a young age and enslaved by brothers from Bordeaux who ran a plantation in Haiti. It wasn’t until her captor died that she was granted legal freedom, and lived to the ripe age of 105. The Modeste Testas life-sized statue is cast in bronze and sits on the banks of Garonne and was unveiled in 2019.
It was this past Monday that the statue was found to be covered in white plaster. A legal complaint was issued, and as investigations carried on, it was deemed the actions of an art student whose identity has remained anonymous. When the situation was concluded, officials stated that the student claimed to have “no racist motive” and the complaint was withdrawn, with a message of disapproval from the city. It’s difficult not to take these statements with a grain of salt, but at the very least it is an active disrespect towards an important memorial for those affected by the slave trade.
It is also difficult not to look at this in the light of similar incidents in France and highlight the double standard. Black rights activist Franco Lollia was convicted and fined this past June for defacing a colonial monument. Depicting Jean-Baptiste Colbert, a 17th-century minister involved with creating laws for slavery was emblazoned in red with the words “State Negrophobia” by Lollia. The activist was fined over €1,500, but he and Guy Florentin—his lawyer—are intent on appealing the decision and pushing back against the decision to maintain monuments to racist historical figures.
While both actions clearly take on the same form, they have been treated in entirely different manners by officials. One instance, whether it be racially motivated or simply vacant vandalism, is permitted with a finger waggle. The other, motivated by a fight against inequality, is punished. The Modeste Testas statue may be on the repair, but the archaic attitudes that governments follow in such matters are what clearly needs work.